Opening Up a Life

Anne Fadiman and Jenny Allen

In Conversation

Barnes and Noble

Named an NPR Best Book of the Year, Anne Fadiman’s poignant memoir The Wine Lover’s Daughter examines her relationship with her father, Clifton Fadiman. Though he was a renowned literary critic, editor, and radio host, his greatest love was wine. The book explores the themes of career, ambition, family, and the cost of social mobility through the eyes of a daughter who through writing found new closeness with her father. Anne Fadiman spoke with humorist, performer, and longtime friend Jenny Allen, author of the biting and imaginative essay collection Would Everybody Please Stop?, at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore on Martha’s Vineyard about delving into her father’s life, about how he managed to find happiness after he lost his sight, about being the offspring of a famous writer—and, naturally, about wine.

Jenny Allen: When you read this book, you think, “Well, of course she used wine as a way to talk about her dad.” That’s a perfect way to do it. Was there a moment of “Ah, this is such a perfect idea,” or did you think about doing it seven different ways, and then the wine theme just came to you?

Anne Fadiman: Hmm. I’ve always thought that the best way to understand somebody is to understand what that person loves. The two things my father loved most were books and wine. Because I followed in his footsteps as far as books went, there wasn’t a whole lot of new stuff to understand there. But if I could understand why he loved wine—something we hadn’t shared—I thought I might get to know him better. And I did. Even though he’d been dead for a decade when I started this book.

Allen: Could you tell us about how this book began?

Fadiman: I wanted a microcosmic way into my father’s life. I never wanted to write a biography. Or a memoir that covered everything about him. This project started off as one of several ideas for essays—6,000 words, tops—that I brought to an editor at Harper’s. I told him, “I think I could write an essay that describes the arc of my father’s career and his character through wine,” and he said without missing a beat, “Write that and call it ‘The Oenophile’s Daughter.’”

The title was laid to rest after I discovered that no one knows how to define, spell, or pronounce “oenophile.” Some people seem to think it’s a kind of pedophile. Four strikes. Hence, The Wine Lover’s Daughter. But when that editor said the three words “The Oenophile’s Daughter,” he gave me permission to say to myself, “Oh, this is not just about my father, it’s about me.” That changed everything.

Wine is the spine, but the flesh is my father’s character and my relationship with him.

The Wine Lover’s Daughter rapidly outgrew 6,000 words, and that excellent editor was fired. So the essay became history, and I got started on the book. Incidentally, most of it isn’t about wine. Wine is the spine, but the flesh is my father’s character and my relationship with him.

Allen: You do not have to be a wine lover to love this book.

Fadiman: Or to write it.

Allen: Exactly. There’s a wonderful chapter where you talk to taste experts and find out that . . . Well, will you say it? Will you tell it?

Fadiman: Sure! I had some genetic tests done, and went to a taste laboratory and talked with a couple of taste scientists, and discovered that I have some genetic variants that make me extra sensitive to bitterness. Also that my palate is unusually sensitive in general. That sounds so exciting and refined! But it really just means that most foods taste too strong to me, and that alcohol tastes particularly strong. Unfortunately, including wine.

Allen: You said you came to know your dad better through writing this book , but it was also obvious that you knew him very well when he was alive. Did you feel that worlds were revealed to you after he died, or that because of your research you had more details to attach to things?

Fadiman: More details. I had the chance to put everything together. I read everything he’d published, along with all his journals. I’m his literary executor, and I discovered he’d saved everything I’d ever written to him. I’d done the same. So I was able to read all his letters to me and all my letters to him. Hundreds. This was all pre-email, so our letters were long. And they covered a lot of years, since he lived to ninety-five.

I also had a secret weapon: a pile of old tapes. In 1984, when my father was about to have his eightieth birthday and was still fairly well known, LIFE magazine sent me out to Santa Barbara, where my parents were living. It wasn’t a very long piece—a puff piece, really—but I thought, “This is my chance! LIFE is going to pay me to interview him, and they’ll transcribe the tapes!”

Allen: What were those taped conversations like?

Fadiman: Incredibly honest. At eighty, my father was convinced he was going to die in about five minutes instead of fifteen years later. So he was willing to be quite confessional. I asked him about a lot of difficult topics I knew would never make the pages of LIFE magazine, and he was extraordinarily candid. I hadn’t read those transcripts in years. Decades! They turned out to be a treasure trove. Researching the book didn’t reveal any startling new skeletons in the closet. He’d already identified most of the skeletons back in 1984, but I’d never written about them.

I did make one big new discovery: I found his cellar books—the records of the wines he started collecting in 1935, two years after the end of Prohibition. I’d had no idea they existed. In fact, they were in a folder I’d inherited from him. They’d been sitting in a file cabinet in my office for years.

Allen: But you’d heard about the cellar books?

Fadiman: Oh yes, he’d told me about them. And he mentioned them in several of the essays he’d written about wine. But actually finding the cellar books, and reading the first line of the first page—“Morey, Clos des Lambrays ’29”—oh, my God, there it was! Finding the cellar books was my Citizen Kane-ian Rosebud moment.

Allen: Your father loved wine, but he hated grapes. He wouldn’t even touch a plate that grapes were on.

Fadiman: Yup. He once said, “Food should be as far as possible from its origins.” He didn’t like liver, but he liked pâté. He didn’t like grapes, but he loved wine.

Allen: And he didn’t like lettuce, but he liked braised endive.

Fadiman: Exactly. I remember my brother Kim once saying that our father wanted to make himself into a man who was as far as possible from his origins as well.

Allen: That was a powerful metaphor. He sounds like a wonderful man and a caring, loving father, but he was wildly insecure his whole life. You say that he felt “awkward, counterfeit, and permanently stuck in Brooklyn.” And that drinking a glass of wine allowed all these anxieties to dissipate for a while.

Fadiman: Yes, every night.

Allen: But did you know how insecure he was?

Fadiman: Sure.

Allen: Your whole life? Or is that something that came to you later, when you were writing?

Fadiman: I always knew. And he’d talked about it himself in those interviews I’d taped when he was eighty.

When you’re writing a memoir, if you put in only the good stuff about somebody, the thing isn’t worth writing.

When you’re writing a memoir, if you put in only the good stuff about somebody, the thing isn’t worth writing. My book has several chapters my father would have hated. I never could have written it while he was alive because it would have hurt him too much. I also wouldn’t have written it while he was alive because he was still too famous. It would have been like writing about your father if your last name were Cheever or Updike. You’d never know whether people were reading your book because they were interested in your famous parent rather than in your own writing. I wish my father were still well-known, but the fading of his fame did have some psychological advantages for me. You’re in a stronger position if you’re trying to rescue someone from disappearing than if you worry you’re trading on his name.

Allen: You wrote that one of the reasons he loved wine was that wine wasn’t Jewish.

Fadiman: My father never kept his Jewish roots a secret, but he sure tried to cut them off. That was par for the course among secular Jews of his time—he was born in 1904—who grew up surrounded by anti-Semitism. The formative trauma of his life came when he was a grad student at Columbia, hoping to be hired, and the head of the Columbia English Department said to him, “We have room for only one Jew, and we have chosen Mr. Trilling.” “Mr. Trilling” was Lionel Trilling, his best friend. Lionel went on to become a distinguished scholar. My father left the academy.

When my father was in his seventies, he recorded a series of conversations with Lionel’s widow, Diana Trilling, for a Columbia oral history project. He told Diana that when he and Lionel were writing for The Menorah Journal, they didn’t think of it as a Jewish journal. The Menorah Journal? As I say in the book, that’s sort of like saying that Canoe & Kayak isn’t a magazine about boats.

Allen: Your father certainly wasn’t alone in his deep discomfort with his Jewishness. That was really generational.

Fadiman: Many of his friends changed their names to sound more gentile. He didn’t have to, but he probably would have if “Fadiman” hadn’t been . . .

Allen: . . . ethnically ambiguous.

Fadiman: Exactly. “Fadiman” had been the family name back in Minsk for generations, but many of my father’s readers were under the impression that it was British.

Allen: The Lionel Trilling story is very upsetting. You say that if he’d been an Episcopalian, that conversation with the department chair wouldn’t have happened. Do you feel it changed the course of his life? Would he have been as happy as an academic? Or do you feel he was destined to have a broader audience?

Fadiman: He was such a showman that I’m not sure he would have been a happy academic. But it was still a real loss. I’ve talked about it with Lionel and Diana’s son, Jim Trilling—and also about what it’s like to drag around the names “Fadiman” and “Trilling.” Jim recently told me that even though his father was envious of mine for being richer and more famous and so on, his parents also felt that my father had sold out by becoming popular. Also, that he’d had too much fun.

Allen: Well, that may have been a good way for Lionel Trilling to feel a little bit better about your father’s success. This leads into the idea of the middlebrow. We don’t even use the word “middlebrow” any more, but reading the book, I was reminded of when it used to be an expression—“mass cult,” “mid cult,” and so forth.

Fadiman: Today my father would probably be viewed as a highbrow. But you’re right. Back then he was definitely written off as middlebrow.

Allen: Was he stung by that label?

Fadiman: Yes. But he always said, “It’s true, of course.” That was consistent with his self-deprecation shtick—part faux-patrician modesty, part genuine insecurity. Of course, that middlebrow-ness—the fact that he reached out to so many people as a radio host and reviewer and Book-of-the-Month Club judge—was what put us through private school and bought our houses.

Allen: He was very mindful of money. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Fadiman: He was the son of lower-middle-class Russian immigrants. When he was growing up in Brooklyn, he shared a bed with his two brothers. He was indeed very mindful of money, and very proud of having made money—which was why it was such an extraordinary experience when I found his cellar book. He wrote down with gusto the price he paid for every bottle and every case. Château Mouton Rothschild, two bottles, $2.35 each. Chambertin, one bottle, $1.65. Grands Échézeaux, one case, $35.40. The prices seem absurdly low to us now, but on the first day he started his cellar, he bought more than nine hundred bottles. For him, it added up to a fortune.

Allen: How had he learned about wine?

Fadiman: It was 1935. He had become the editor in chief of Simon and Schuster at the age of twenty-eight. One of the first books he published was by Frank Schoonmaker, a wine merchant who decided he needed to re-introduce his future customers to wine because it had been unavailable in America during Prohibition. Schoonmaker became a friend and taught my father all about wine—European wine, that is, which was all there was at the time. By publishing Schoonmaker, my father helped create the market for wine in the United States—and then he bought his first wines from Schoonmaker!

Here’s the most amazing thing. My father’s cellar book began on some pages that had obviously been torn from the back of a book. There were headings for the name of the wine and the source and the price and the tasting notes and so on. While I was writing my book, I had suddenly had this thought: “Oh, my God. What if he tore those pages from Schoonmaker’s book?” Which I’d never seen. So I found an ancient first edition on eBay. It arrived in the mail. I turned to the back. Yup. A match. My father had torn those pages from the book he’d published.

Allen: That was one of those great moments. Now, I wanted to ask a little about politics. A lot of the mid-century public intellectuals became very political. You said that although he was never a Communist, your father flirted with left-wing politics. How was he during the McCarthy era? I know he had this previous funny relationship with Whittaker Chambers.

Fadiman: Yes, when they were undergraduate friends at Columbia, he’d suggested that Whittaker Chambers—who at that time was an admirer of Calvin Coolidge—read The Communist Manifesto. Chambers became a famous Communist before he eventually swung in the other direction and became a famous right-wing journalist.

During the McCarthy era, a red-baiting journalist named Westbrook Pegler gave my father a lot of trouble. Since he’d never actually been a member of the Communist party, he didn’t end up losing his career. But he was a good left-winger, and so were most of his friends, and so was my mother. I was raised with no religion except for left-wing politics.

Allen: Something really interesting happened to your father when he was eighty-eight: he lost his sight. There’s a wonderful part in the book where you talk about how he handled this. Besides drinking wine and loving food and loving his family, the main thing this man did was read books and write. So how did he deal with blindness?

Within a few days, he went from being able to read the Encyclopedia Britannica to not being able to see the “E” at the top of an eye chart.

Fadiman: My father had something called acute retinal necrosis—a form of ocular shingles from a chicken pox virus that had been latent for perhaps eighty years. Within a few days, he went from being able to read the Encyclopedia Britannica to not being able to see the “E” at the top of an eye chart.

My parents were living in Southwest Florida at the time. I took my father across the state to an eye hospital in Miami, where he was told he’d never read again. With laser surgery, they saved what little sight he had left—basically, a blur. I stayed in a cot next to his bed that night at the hospital, and he told me in the dark that if he couldn’t read or write, his life was over. He wanted to commit suicide and asked if I would help him.

I’d written a long piece about elderly suicide for LIFE a few years earlier, and he thought I would know something about methods. Which I did. But I said, “Why don’t you try your damnedest for six months? And then we can talk again.” I didn’t tell him that I’d help him, but I also didn’t tell him that I wouldn’t. So I knew I’d be spending those six months on the edge of my chair.

Allen: So what happened?

Fadiman: Part of “trying his damnedest” was going to a six-week program for partially sighted and newly blinded adults in Fort Myers. The organization that ran it was called VIP, for Visually Impaired Persons. When he was there he actually did feel like a VIP, because it was full of nice old Jewish ladies from New York who remembered Clifton Fadiman from Information Please, the radio quiz show he’d hosted in the 1930s and 40s. They couldn’t see him, but that didn’t matter—they hadn’t seen him on the radio either! All they remembered was his voice, which had hardly changed in half a century. His VIP leader asked him to start something called Fadiman’s Conversation Class. Five of the nice old ladies showed up, and he gave them a homework assignment: listen to Larry King’s talk show in preparation for a discussion tomorrow. My father completed the VIP program and never mentioned suicide again.

Allen: And you said that you thought he’d actually rarely been happier.

Fadiman: That’s right. He had seven years of being able to see only blurs—and yet, amazingly, he didn’t lose his joie de vivre. I think part of it was pride. He hadn’t served in either the first or second world wars—he was too young for one and too old for the other—and he always felt that if he had served he would have been a coward. In his old age, he faced something really difficult and surprised himself by turning out to be brave.

You know how you’re always reading that old people should learn something new—how to speak Italian or play the clarinet or whatever? Well, my father learned how to be blind. That was a subject with a really steep learning curve. Part of it was learning how to listen to recorded books. So he didn’t stop reading. He didn’t even lose his job as a judge at the Book-of-the-Month Club.

Allen: Wasn’t he afraid that he would?

Fadiman: Yes. But I persuaded his boss at the Book-of-the Month Club to use the money that had previously been allocated to importing him by plane to meetings in New York every month, and putting him up at a fancy hotel, and instead hire out-of-work actors (and my older brother) to read manuscripts aloud on cassette tapes and FedEx them to him. He’d listen to the tapes and dictate reports to his secretary. He continued to work up until three months before his death. He continued to feel useful. And a lot of the stuff that he’d loved—food and, especially, wine—became even more important to him. So those were, against all odds, among his happiest years.

Allen: That’s such a lovely coda to a life. And you said that during those years, he felt less of a coward and less counterfeit—less dogged by the insecurities he’d had all his life.

Fadiman: Yes, that’s right. Because he wasn’t pretending to deal well with blindness. He wasn’t pretending to continue his work. He actually was.

Allen: And lastly, for all his self-doubt—which I actually loved about him, I have to say—he got broader in other ways as he got older. Just to return to wine for a minute: it’s very sweet how you talk about how he broadened his taste even in the wines he drank.

Fadiman: Oh yeah! Wines from California. New Zealand. Yugoslavia.

Allen: Argentina!

Fadiman: Retsina, from Greece! Oh, my God. Whereas he’d started with only the great Bordeaux and Burgundies.

Even his literary tastes broadened. When he was in his fifties, he’d edited a book called The Lifetime Reading Plan: one hundred great books he said you should read before you die. Of those original hundred, ninety-seven were by men, and one hundred were Western. When he was an old man, he hired a collaborator to help him put together a new edition—it’s the only book of his that’s still in print—with writers from Asia and Latin American and Africa. And a lot more women. He really did broaden. One of the last things he did was co-edit an anthology of world poetry. He got really, really interested in medieval Persian poetry. In his nineties.

Allen: Something he would never have taken on when he was younger.

Fadiman: Exactly. Most old people get narrower because they want to stay in the groove of what’s familiar. They hate change. My father complained about changes in American culture, but his own taste widened in so many ways. That was one reason he was an incredible grandfather. He was genuinely curious about my children, even when they were babies.

And he continued to be a really fun father. Even when he was over ninety. He was constantly asking, “What new authors are you enjoying?” and “Who are you putting in The American Scholar?” (that was a journal I was editing at the time) and “I’d like to suggest some writers for you” and “Here’s a book, go read it.” He just became larger and larger and larger.

No one will ever notice this, but I structured the book in a sort of fan shape. The first chapters are very short and tight. They get longer and more emotionally open and more willing to depart from the central topic. Just the way his life opened.

Allen: Oh, beautiful. I do feel that when you read The Wine Lover’s Daughter, you intuit that effect. Now I want to go back and reread it and see how you did it.

Anne Fadiman is the author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award, an L.A. Times Book Prize, and a Salon Book Award. She is also the author of the essay collection At Large and At Small and the editor of Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love. Her essays and articles have appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, among other publications. She is the Francis Writer-in-Residence at Yale.

Jenny Allen is a writer and performer. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times, among other publications. Her award-winning solo show, I Got Sick Then I Got Better, has been seen in venues across the country and in Canada. She lives on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Would Everybody Please Stop? is her first book.